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Bush defends `darned good intelligence' on Iraq

WASHINGTON—President Bush on Monday defended the intelligence on which he based his decision to go to war with Iraq, saying it was "darn good," despite recent revelations that one of his allegations against Saddam Hussein couldn't be confirmed.

With polls showing support for the president and his war policy slipping, Bush vigorously defended his original contention that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction that could pose a threat to the United States.

"I think the intelligence I get is darned good intelligence," he said. "And the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence. And I am absolutely convinced today, like I was convinced when I gave the speeches ... that our country made the right decision."

His comments represented another attempt to contain the furor over his use of disputed claims that Iraq had attempted to buy African uranium for nuclear weapons.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the information about uranium played no role in the decision to attack Saddam.

"This revisionist notion that somehow this is now the core of why we went to war, a central issue of why we went to war, a fundamental underpinning of the president's decisions, is a bunch of bull," Fleischer said.

Fleischer was referring to an allegation Bush made Jan. 28 in his State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons.

The White House acknowledged last week that the allegation about an attempted uranium purchase shouldn't have been included in Bush's State of the Union address because it was based on British intelligence that the CIA was unable to confirm. The United States had its own separate reports of Iraqi attempts to buy African uranium, White House officials said, but they were fragmentary and inconclusive.

CIA Director George Tenet took responsibility last week for including the allegation in Bush's address, saying it was cleared in advance by the spy agency.

Critics, led by Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers, have seized on the issue, contending that the Bush administration—in seeking to boost popular support for invading Iraq—exaggerated or misrepresented intelligence of Saddam's threat to the United States.

Bush said Monday that he wouldn't have included the uranium allegation if the CIA hadn't cleared it. He repeated his contention that Iraq had been hiding banned biological and chemical weapons, which he said were threats to its neighbors and the United States.

He then asserted that the United States had invaded only after Saddam refused to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors, who had been barred from Iraq since 1998.

"The fundamental question is: Did Saddam Hussein have a (banned) weapons program? And the answer is: absolutely," Bush said during a White House news conference with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. "And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him."

In fact, Iraq readmitted the U.N. inspectors last November. The mission's director, former Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, subsequently accused the United States of not giving his staff enough time to complete their search before the invasion began March 20.

The uranium furor erupted after Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat whom the CIA sent to the West African nation of Niger in 2002 to investigate the allegation, said last week that he had been unable to substantiate intelligence reports that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Documents on which those reports were based subsequently had been determined to be crude forgeries.

Fleischer reiterated Monday that there was intelligence indicating that Iraq tried to purchase uranium elsewhere in Africa, but it wasn't strong enough to have been included in the State of the Union speech.

Fleischer said the inclusion of the disputed uranium material in the president's speech had been fully explained, and that the White House now considered the issue closed.

"I think the bottom has been gotten to," Fleischer said. "No one can accurately tell you it (the intelligence) was wrong. That is not known." In his address, Bush said "the British government has learned" that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium in Africa.

The Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA inspector general's office are looking into how the allegation was included in the State of the Union address.

Britain on Monday stood by its contention that it had evidence other than the forged Niger documents that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa.

"This information on which we relied, which was completely separate from the now-notorious forged documents, came from foreign intelligence sources," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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